“Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God.” Words from our 1st reading today from the 2nd chapter of the prophet Joel – sisters and brothers, may the Lord give to you his peace and his joy.
I was thinking about Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent and all the things we do at this time of the year in the Church both personally and collectively. And I was thinking, you know what, Lent is a hard season and not a lot of fun and a challenging calling to get back to work. We like Christmas, we like Easter… we don’t like Lent. Even the first reading today begins with the dreary idea of fasting and weeping and mourning and rending. And so, my mind just kept coming back to those thoughts about all those things that I am going to be losing out on if I take Lent seriously for my life, if I do what Jesus asks of me: to pray, to fast, and to give alms once again this season.
There was a woman who was once asked: “what do you gain from praying to God regularly?” She replied, I usually don’t gain anything but rather I lose things. And she quoted everything she lost praying to God regularly: “I lost my pride. I lost my arrogance. I lost greed. I lost my urge. I lost my anger. I lost the lust. I lost the pleasure of lying. I lost the taste of sin. I lost impatience, despair, and discouragement.” She said, “that is how prayer is supposed to quote un-quote work. Often times, we pray not so much to gain something, but to lose things that don’t allow us to grow spiritually.”
What about the idea of fasting that Jesus proposes? This practice, indeed, is about giving up things that occupy a space in our personal lives. The most popular things that are given up by folks during Lent include fasting from deserts, chocolate, soda, and fried foods, so that I can lose those 20 pounds and get back to the healthy lifestyle I’ve been meaning to do; the list of fasting opportunities includes the possibilities for giving up alcohol, smoking, and other addictive substances that aren’t good for me, which only make me dependent and addicted, and can’t fill my emptiness; one may decide this Lent to give up social media use, getting off of Facebook or Instagram for 40 days, or to use this time of fasting as that opportunity to finally stop consuming inappropriate and explicit content, or to hold off from those impromptu online shopping sprees, or cut back on streaming shows, watching TV or playing video games that waste hours of our days without warning and fill our heads with useless noise making it hard to hear the quiet inner voice of our own being crying out to us from the depths of our souls; maybe I decide it’s time to give up the swearing, the complaining and the gossip and lose the attitude that tears people down instead of building them up this Lent. There are many things that we could fast from this Lent, I suppose.
And then, Jesus calls us furthermore to give alms, to sacrifice what we have and put it at the service of others, especially when we consider everything we-have-been-blessed-with and at the same time, recognize that so many more people living in the same world as you and I are still lacking in those things that are needed just to survive. Maybe then, I part with my money this Lent so that others can eat, can drink, can grow up, can get healthy, can learn a thing or two through education… Maybe I give up the time that I have and spend it with others, especially those who are lost and lonely and have no one to love them, so they know that they are not forgotten. Maybe I offer up my talents in the service of others, so that my church and local community may grow and blossom because of the need that I fill, because of the unique gift that I have to offer.
As we stand on the precipice of this season of Lent and consider all those things we stand to lose, each of us in our own way realize just how much we could go without, how much we have been weighed down, how much, really, we long to be free from such things that have a foothold in our life, and how those things have prevented us from growing in relationship with God and ourselves and with one another. Yeah, I guess there are a lot of things that we stand to lose this Lent, but then again, losing doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Even now, says the LORD, return to me with your whole heart, with fasting, and weeping, and mourning; Rend your hearts, not your garments, and return to the LORD, your God. For gracious and merciful is he, slow to anger, rich in kindness, and relenting in punishment. Perhaps he will again relent and leave behind him a blessing, Offerings and libations for the LORD, your God. Blow the trumpet in Zion! proclaim a fast, call an assembly; Gather the people, notify the congregation; Assemble the elders, gather the children and the infants at the breast; Let the bridegroom quit his room and the bride her chamber. Between the porch and the altar let the priests, the ministers of the LORD, weep, And say, "Spare, O LORD, your people, and make not your heritage a reproach, with the nations ruling over them! Why should they say among the peoples, 'Where is their God?'" Then the LORD was stirred to concern for his land and took pity on his people.
R. (see 3a) Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Have mercy on me, O God, in your goodness; in the greatness of your compassion wipe out my offense. Thoroughly wash me from my guilt and of my sin cleanse me. R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. For I acknowledge my offense, and my sin is before me always: "Against you only have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight." R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me. Cast me not out from your presence, and your Holy Spirit take not from me. R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned. Give me back the joy of your salvation, and a willing spirit sustain in me. O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise. R. Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.
Brothers and sisters: We are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him. Working together, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. For he says: In an acceptable time I heard you, and on the day of salvation I helped you. Behold, now is a very acceptable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
Verse Before the Gospel
If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.
Jesus said to his disciples: "Take care not to perform righteous deeds in order that people may see them; otherwise, you will have no recompense from your heavenly Father. When you give alms, do not blow a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets to win the praise of others. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right is doing, so that your almsgiving may be secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. "When you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, who love to stand and pray in the synagogues and on street corners so that others may see them. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you pray, go to your inner room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will repay you. "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They neglect their appearance, so that they may appear to others to be fasting. Amen, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you may not appear to be fasting, except to your Father who is hidden. And your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you."